The Value of Relationships

By Brad McEwen

There was undoubtedly worry, frustration and fear as they stood in the parking lot of a neighboring business an inferno engulf their third generation family business.

But for Bishop Clean Care owners Jud and Jenny Savelle, that moment in late October 2018—for all of its drama and difficulty—also brought with it a sense of calm and a sense of hope.

And it also served as a clear reminder that they had been absolutely right taking to heart a crucial piece of advice Jud’s mom Patti had imparted to the young couple when they said goodbye to good jobs in the Atlanta area to move home and take over the family business.

“As engineers we’re not the most social people,” Jenny told me with a wry smile during a recent Beyond the Bank interview at the company’s newly remodeled facility in Lee County. “We’re kind of uptight. But one of the things that Patti really wanted us to continue in the business is the community involvement piece.

“She said, ‘You need to go to Business After Hours.’ Those are the things that she really valued, the Chamber involvement, and just networking and building relationships. And it’s not really my forte.

“But we pushed ourselves to continue to go, because it was the right thing to do, initially. But it was not natural. But then as time went on, we continued doing the same thing.

“Eventually, you realize there’s value,” Jenny continued. “You become better at it. And eventually you enjoy it and you want to invest in that. It was quite a process to make it there, but I’m glad Patti had led us to do that, kind of pushed us.”

Jud agreed, adding that the notion of relationships as being a top priority was simply not something either he or Jenny had really been focused on when they first took over.

With their shared engineering background, both said they approached that monumental life decision the way they think most engineers would—with logic and reason. Or as Jud likes to say, “the head.”

“I think the best small business owner, especially, finds a balance between work and between head and heart,” Jud explained. “We definitely had to shift a lot. It was all head at first, every bit of it. And a lot had to shift to the heart. Now I don’t mean gut. You hear people talk about their gut. And I mean, yeah, you’ve got some of that and that just comes from experience.

“Experience with the gut, but then, the heart is like, ‘okay, I’m hearing from my employee about this situation, and my head is telling me I should react this way.’ But then the heart’s telling you there might be a better way.”

Interestingly, that transition in mindset was possible, thanks to the more analytical, measured approach the two engineers employed when first starting out. As Jud explained, it took he and Jenny a good bit of time to think through the entirety of his mom’s suggestion since both had already graduated from Tech and were solidly working their way up the food chains of their respective employers, just as they’d always imagined.

And they also had to think hard about living in Southwest Georgia, having grown accustomed to the Atlanta area.

“It was one of those things, when I left Albany I said, ‘See you later mom. Good luck with the business. I won’t be back,’” Jud said with a laugh as he thought back to the days when he was working at Delta and Jenny was working for the U.S. Postal Service. “But after that call from mom, Jenny and I thought, ‘You know, working for ourselves is attractive; it’s appealing.’ And while we might not have chosen scrubbing rugs and cleaning toilets for a living, it’s a good thriving business.

“I thought, it’s got a good name, it’s got a good reputation and we can learn from it.’ And so, we made that decision to come down here.”

“I was going to interject,” Jenny continued. “We were climbing the corporate ladder and we were enjoying our jobs. But we felt like we could be climbing the corporate ladder for the rest of our lives. And it might require us to maybe move around. So, we thought, ‘Hey, why not try working for each other and being accountable and owning your own business?’

“That’s what kind of made us make that drastic decision to just quit our jobs and move here.”

While the initial decision was certainly driven by the financial opportunity of being business owners, the pair said it didn’t take long for them to see that their decision had greater ramifications than simply starting on a new career path.

As a young couple looking to start their own family, the move to Albany also coincided with a desire to set up more permanent roots than either felt they could do in the Atlanta area at that time. But even that desire didn’t truly prepare them for what they would experience upon first arriving in the community, especially as far as Jenny was concerned.

“I think I definitely had more to acclimate to than Jud did,” she explained. “I was born in Beijing, moved to Chicago, then to Atlanta. So, I was definitely downsizing to smaller towns.”

But while there was definitely a period of adjustment, Jenny said it really didn’t take too long for her to realize the many benefits of living and working in a smaller community.

“When you go back to the bigger cities you realize, ‘Wow, it’s really nice to live in a small town,” she continued. “Especially when you’re running a business, growing your family and everything else.”

“I do find that Albany is much smaller than I even imaged, or had prepared myself for. It took me a while to get used to it, but I really found myself embracing it. The slower pace, the southern hospitality, the relationship piece.”

That Jenny would hone in on the “relationship piece” when talking about the couple’s transition to Albany was appropriate.

Throughout our hour-plus interview, whether discussing the rigors of GA Tech, Jenny’s parents’ decision to leave China for the states and a better opportunity for their daughter, or some of the more granular details of running their particular kind of business, the conversation always seemed to find its way back to the notion of relationships.

And how becoming more relationship-focused has emerged as one of the core focuses for the company.

As Jud explained, when the couple first arrived in Albany, they were well-aware of the fact that they were taking the reins of a family business that had grown and thrived through multiple generations and various changes in the company’s core business. And understanding that history was a key focus early on.

According to Jud, the company that today is Bishop Clean Care was actually started in Dothan, AL back in 1948 by Jud’s grandfather’s brother, Eustace Bishop.

“Within just a few years he started expanding,” Jud said. “He came over and started looking at Albany around 1951 and by 1952 he’d gotten an operation started here and had my grandfather come over and join him. When my grandfather got involved it was Bishop Laundry and Dry Cleaners at the time.

“They expanded into uniform rental, things like that, pretty quickly in the ‘50s and, I believe, by the early ‘60s they started looking at splitting up. They split the uniform business up and by then they’d gotten into carpet cleaning.

“That’s the one my grandfather took, the carpet cleaning part. And then by 1970 they had sold off the dry cleaner. I think there’s still a Bishop Laundry and Dry Cleaners around. I think the one on Gillionville might still be there. Someone might have bought it, I don’t know. But a lot of people get us confused. They bring clothes here and it’s, ‘No that’s not us. Not in 50 years.’

“But anyway, my grandfather is the one that kept going with the carpet cleaning.”

Jud went on to explain that it was in the 1970s that Bishop really started to grown and expand into its current iteration, when the company got into fire damage restoration and janitorial services.

“That’s about the time my parents got involved, my father and mother, in 1978,” Jud continued. “And they officially purchased the business from my grandfather in 1978.”

Jud said the business did fairly well during those early years, slowing growing the carpet cleaning, janitorial and restoration services, before his mother took over the business solely in the mid-80s.

As Jud explained, the company did fine throughout the 80s and early 90s, but it was really during the Flood of ’94 that Bishop’s fortunes truly shifted, and he started to see the importance his mom placed on relationships.

“My mother took over in 1984 and just really is responsible for a lot of our growth and success during the ‘80s and ‘90s,” said Jud. “And of course in the ‘90s we were heavily involved in the flood work.

“When something on that scale happens, you have a lot of companies that come to town, and Bishop’s was sort of a gathering point, almost, for a lot of these companies to get information. And she would help because she knew she couldn’t do it all.

“So, she kind of became an advisor and would help people navigate the community and make sure the people could get help. And of course as a company, we did a lot.

“That was one of my earliest jobs with the company, working the flood,” he continued. “I was only 14 during the ’94 flood, but she still had me doing things OSHA probably wouldn’t approve of.”

Jud added that another important event happened during his mother’s tenure which would also help to catapult the company forward, and bring in one of the company’s key individuals, a move that set the tone for the company’s long track record of developing and nurturing their employees.

“She credits a fire damage job that they got for one of the Dougherty County School System’s schools as when the tables turned and the company became profitable,” Jud said. “They were awarded a big job to clean up that school and she always says that’s the point where we really started getting back in the black and so after that janitorial really took off.

“Dennis Moore (who is still with Bishop and runs the janitorial side of things) started in the early ‘90s and he’s also been responsible for a lot of that growth. In the early 2000s things were still going well and then she decided retirement was pending and she called on us.”

While Jud concedes that he and Jenny most certainly have made several changes to the way the company operates—getting greener; using modern technology for scheduling, billing, etc.; expanding services to be less reliant on insurance work; modernizing janitorial; reallocating marketing spend to include digital and social media—he’s adamant that the one thing the couple didn’t change, thanks to the lessons Jud had learned from his mother, was the focus on relationships.

“I talked earlier about not looking at the immediate operational benefit of a decision, but the long-term operational benefit,” Jud explained. “And I saw her making those decisions in our family and in the business that she was running, that were just instilled in me.

“I saw her helping people that no one ever noticed. I saw a lot of that from her. There’s a couple of people in particular that she sort of was like a guardian angel to them when no one was there to help them, literally.

“And so, I saw that and it just made me see. It was the depth of what she did, not the breadth of it. That’s stuck with me in terms of my work ethic. It’s like, ‘Look, whatever you’re going to do, do it well.

“And she never did anything to get famous. She did it because it was the right thing to do.

“And I think another value that sort of went along with that was vendor relationships. She—kind of more than us, but we’ve adopted it too—was very, very loyal to vendors. She stressed that business relationships mattered, especially in a small town.

“You don’t flip vendors just because it was financially beneficial to you. If you changed there needed to be a good relationship reason.”

“There’s value in relationships,” added Jenny.

And that relational focus also extended to the community at large.

Both Jud and Jenny wholeheartedly agreed that one of the keys to the couple’s continued success is their willingness to get involved in the community they serve and attempting to always filter the decisions they make running Bishop through the lens of the entire Dougherty/Lee County community.

“One thing we tried to do is recognize that we are just a boat on a sea, the sea of Albany,” Jud said. “We’re a small boat in the sea of Albany and we cannot lift ourselves up without the water rising and everybody else going up at the same time. If we want to be successful, P&G’s got to be successful. AB&T’s got to be successful. The smallest restaurant in town needs to be successful. The Cookie Shoppe needs to be successful.

“So, while something like the EDC doesn’t go out and necessarily directly help us grow our business, we know we’re going to donate to the EDC because we know they’re supporting these big industries that create big jobs. They bring people. They create value. They create economy. Then our business will thrive.”

“Living a large city, I think it’s easier to have that mentality that, ‘Well, I’m not going to make a difference because it’s so big;’ you’re a fish in a sea,” Jenny continued. “But in a smaller town, we kind of realize and recognize that ‘You know what, you’re more impactful than you think. You can actually make a difference.’

“So, it’s about everything Jud mentioned: supporting other businesses and running a thriving business of your own, serving on boards and making decisions so you actually are making a difference. And that helps to drive our desire to do even more.”

“And that was a surprise to me,” said Jud, seamlessly picking up where Jenny left off. “I never would have thought that. I mean I looked at professional development differently at Delta or at Georgia Tech where it was, ‘Take these hard skills classes and find a mentor,’ which are still important things, but here it’s shifted. It’s more of a network.

“Make those relationships and work together to build a community that doesn’t have all the resources that a large corporation in a large city would have. “Here, we’re all in this together. It’s felt more than just, ‘We’re trying to make a company profitable.’ We’re trying to make a community thrive.”

To that end, Jud and Jenny haven’t simply attended things like business after hours and tried to keep long-time vendors during their time at the helm of Bishop Clean Care. But rather, the couple have embraced their roles as community ambassadors and given generously of their time by volunteering and serving on boards and committees with various area civic organizations.

Among other things, Jenny has been incredibly active with the Albany Area Chamber of Commerce, doing committee work and also having served as a past chair of the organization’s executive committee, while Jud, in recent years, has been instrumental in revitalizing and growing the community’s premier leadership development program, Leadership Albany.

“You can actually make a difference,” Jenny stressed. “It’s about everything that Jud mentioned, supporting other businesses and running a thriving business of your own. Serving on boards and making decisions, so you see that you actually are making a difference. And that only helps to drive our desire to do more.”

And while the pair has long come to accept that community involvement and relationship building are, and will continue to be, keys to the company’s long term success, any doubts they may have had about taking Patti’s advice to heart were certainly erased from their minds as they stood and watched their facility on Cedric Street disappear in a torrent of fire.

“Honestly, I was surprised at where it took us and how it benefitted us,” Jud admitted of the focus on relationships. “But I’ll give you an example. Our building is literally burning down and we’ve got all kinds of people from different businesses and parts of the community, all these people, standing there with us in Tammy’s [McCrary] parking lot [CTSI] watching our business go down.

“And that same day, literally, Barry Carr is talking to Dennis to offer space for us in the back of his empty Harvey’s store, to use temporarily.

“We just couldn’t imagine what that situation might have looked like, again, without those others in the community.”

“We were able to resume operations within 48 hours,” Jenny added matter-of-factly. “You can’t do that without relationships.”

As someone who shares the Savelles’ belief in the importance of building relationships and their desire to see the entire community grow and thrive, it was refreshing hearing both Jud and Jenny discuss their journey toward embracing that mindset as they worked diligently to streamline and bolster the family business for the future.

Hearing the honest story of that evolution, and the seeing the genuine pride they feel in being able to change and adapt, was not only inspiring, but also further proof of how deserving Bishop Clean Care was earlier this year when the company was named the Albany Area Chamber of Commerce’s Small Business of the Year.

There are a myriad of things that go into building, growing and sustaining a thriving business. And after spending nearly two hours discussing those many aspects, it’s pretty clear Jud and Jenny have a handle on most of them—especially what I too believe is the most important thing—relationships.

In keeping that near the forefront of everything they do, I have no doubt that the future of both Bishop’s Clean Care and the Albany area community it serves, will continue to be bright.

Connect with Brad – 229.405.7212 - brad.mcewen@abtgold.com - @BradGMcEwen 

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